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Why the prosecution of Steve Bannon’s former partners matters

A conservative group said it was raising private funds for a border wall. Its leaders were arrested for fraud, but only one received a presidential pardon.


Donald Trump Jr. attended an event in New Mexico in 2018 and stood alongside a man named Brian Kolfage, who was helping lead an initiative called We Build the Wall. The then-president’s son said at the time, “What you guys are doing is amazing.”

On the surface, what those guys appeared to be doing was an ambitious project: We Build the Wall raised private funds to build border barriers along the U.S./Mexico border. But below the surface, what those guys were actually doing really was “amazing,” but not in a good way. NBC News reported:

“We Build the Wall” campaign crowd-funders Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato pleaded guilty Thursday for their roles in pocketing donations solicited to help build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Kolfage, 39, and Badolato, 57, each pleaded guilty in federal court in New York City to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Kolfage, a triple-amputee Air Force veteran, also pleaded guilty to tax and wire fraud charges.

Chances are, most Americans aren’t familiar with Kolfage and Badolato, but it’s a safe bet you’ve heard of their former partner: Steve Bannon.

In fact, when Bannon was criminally indicted in August 2020, it had nothing to do with the work he’d done directly for Donald Trump and everything to do with his role in the We Build the Wall project.

For those who might need a refresher, We Build the Wall came into existence partway through Trump’s term, ostensibly created to supplement the Republican White House’s efforts to construct barriers along the U.S./Mexico border. While the Trump administration used taxpayer money to construct fencing, We Build the Wall said it would raise private funds from donors in pursuit of the same goal.

As a high-profile political player, Bannon’s role as a board member of the outfit lent it credibility. It wasn’t long before We Build the Wall raised $25 million for the private venture.

The project almost immediately ran into troubles. ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported, for example, that structural issues raised concerns that the conservative outfit delivered a defective product.

The whole endeavor became so problematic that Trump tried to distance himself from the group and its endeavor. He was, by all appearances, brazenly lying: The Texas Tribune reported, Trump “now claims this privately funded border wall in the Rio Grande Valley ... was built to ‘make me look bad,’ even though the project’s builder and funders are all Trump supporters.”

For his part, Bannon told the public that We Build The Wall would function as “a volunteer organization.” Federal prosecutors disagreed: The Justice Department charged Bannon and his associates in August 2020, alleging that they “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction.”

In other words, according to prosecutors, We Build the Wall leaders pocketed some of the money they said would go toward the border project.

We now know that at least some of those criminal allegations were true: Kolfage and Badolato pleaded guilty. Bannon, however, effectively received a get-out-of-jail-free card from his former boss: On the evening of Jan. 19, 2021, Trump’s last full day in the White House, the then-president pardoned Bannon.

As yesterday’s developments reminded us, Bannon’s former associates were not as fortunate.

And while this obviously isn’t good news for Kolfage and Badolato, who face the possibility of incarceration, there’s a larger political context for the public to keep in mind. As The Washington Post’s Greg Miller noted early last year, Trump lied to his supporters about building a wall; Bannon and his associates allegedly defrauded those same Trump supporters by claiming they were raising money to build a wall; and Trump then pardoned Bannon after getting caught by prosecutors.

In other words, Trump, Bannon, and the We Build the Wall guys have something in common: They all exploited the same group of unsuspecting conservative voters, looking at Trump’s followers as gullible suckers, and sold the same con.